Desirelessness and the Good
By Laurence J. Rosan
Philosophy East & West
V. 5 (1955) pp. 57-60
Copyright 1955 by University of Hawaii Press
THIS ARTICLE is a discussion of a basic philosophical concept of the East-the "desirelessness" of Buddhism-and a basic philosophical concept of the West-the "Good" of the Platonists. It will try to show how these two concepts are essentially equivalent in meaning, which, if true, would be clearly an interesting result for both comparative and speculative philosophy. This article makes no attempt to prove the truth of either of these concepts, but only their equivalence.
"Desirelessness" might be called one of the basic concepts (if not the basic concept) of Buddhism, for the "Four Noble Truths" may be reduced to the single proposition that the suffering of life can be ended only by halting the process of desiring, which is its cause. And "nirvaa.na," the goal of every Buddhist originally, is a Sanskrit term meaning essentially "without desire." On the other hand, the concept of the "Good," although not necessarily the only characteristic doctrine of the Platonic or Neo-Platonic tradition, was certainly the highest reality for Plato, and, under the influence of Aristotle's description of the "Prime Mover," the Neo-Platonists defined it as the single Final Cause of the universe, toward which all things move-the goal of every activity, conscious or otherwise. Now, for the Neo-Platonists, the "Good" was also defined as being identical with the "One," that is, they equaled the Final Cause of the universe with the First Formal Cause, or that from which the whole universe is logically evolved. However, in this article (his reality will be considered only in its role as the "Good."
At first glance, "desirelessness" and the "Good" do not seem to refer to the same thing. But in fact they are only two different ways of describing what is exactly the same reality.
A. When I desire anything, the object of my desire must be something that I do not yet possess; if I already had it, it would be impossible for me to desire to obtain it. Although I may desire to retain something once it is already possessed, here the object of desire is the continuation of a present condition, so that it is a future condition which is desired, and this obviously cannot be possessed in the present. Therefore, desire always implies a lack of something which is not yet possessed. Now, to the extent that I desire anything, I must also regard it as desirable or good; that is, the very fact
that something is the object of my desire means that it must have been able to attract my desire for it. At least it appears good to me, regardless of whether or not it is inherently good, or at least it appears the best of all possible choices at that moment. Thus, I could never desire anything which at the moment of my desiring would appear to be bad, but, rather, whatever I desire must always appear to be good.
If, therefore, desire implies a lack of something which is not yet possessed and which must always appear to be good, desire must always imply the lack of an apparent good-if, indeed, "desire" is not actually synonymous with "the lack of an apparent good." To this extent it is the absence of good, the deprivation of good; in other words, desire must always be at least apparently evil. The object of desire is good, to be sure, but the desire itself cannot be good. Suppose that desire itself were good; then we would not desire anything in particular but, rather, we would desire to continue in a state of desiring. In fact, the acquisition of anything would be actually bad inasmuch as it would put an end to this supposedly good state of desiring. But all this is absurd, of course. Those people who claim that they enjoy the state of desiring itself must really mean that they like to be occupied with some form of activity, so that activity is the object of their desire; but they cannot desire their own desire for activity.
To repeat, the object of any desire will always appear to be good, but the desire itself must always appear to be evil. In other words, it is not merely the "cause of suffering," as the Buddhists say, but every desire is itself a state of suffering. Since it is always a deprivation of good, a striving for, or yearning after, that which is not yet possessed, it is equivalent to a psychological state of deprivation, tension, or even anxiety. (Consider some strong desire such as keen hunger or thirst and the tension or anxiety that is part of it.) But if every desire is itself a state of suffering, it is evidently not only an apparent evil but to this extent it should be thought of as a real psychological evil: it is a bad condition of the mind that means suffering to the one who happens to be in this state of desiring. Therefore, each and every desire is a real psychological evil.
The conclusion of this argument is that if every desire is a real psychological evil then the absence of desire, or desirelessness, must be a real psychological good. Now, desirelessness can be achieved in two different ways: either the desire is satisfied by obtaining the object of desire, which is the usual method of putting an end to a desire; or, by some means or other, the desire is prevented from occurring in the first place. When any particular
1. Throughout this article, the word "desire" is being used in the sense of a conscious yearning, not an unconscious movement such as a "reflex."
desire is satisfied by obtaining the desired object, there is nothing to prevent another desire from occurring immediately thereafter; in fact, it is obvious how in daily life one desire follows upon the heels of another. Therefore, this kind of desirelessness-achieved by obtaining the object of desire-can be only a temporary form of desirelessness, in other words, only a temporary good, which is likely to be succeeded at any moment by another state of psychological evil. But the desirelessness which is achieved by preventing all desires from occurring in the first place (however this may be done) will be a permanent form of desirelessness and therefore a permanent good. Now, "nirvaa.na" clearly must refer to this kind of permanent and perfect desirelessness, so that nirvaa.na, permanent desirelessness, must be at least a permanent good.
In fact, there can be no other permanent good which is superior to that of desirelessness. If someone in the state of permanent desirelessness becomes aware of a good superior to the desirelessness which he already possesses, will he not desire this superior good? But, first, he will then no longer be in a state of desirelessness, making his previous state only a temporary one and not the permanent desirelessness of the hypothesis. And, secondly, if he really does obtain a superior good, he will then enter the state of permanent desirelessness-assuming, of course, that he does not become aware of any even "more superior" good. Permanent desirelessness can be a characteristic only of the highest permanent good that is conceivable. This is essentially so by definition, for, if desire is caused by the lack of an apparent good, as long as there exists anything else of which one may possibly become aware which could appear to be good and which is not yet possessed, there will always exist at least the possibility of desire, and, therefore, not unassailable and invulnerable desirelessness. But nirvaa.na is unassailable desirelessness, and as such it can be a characteristic only of the highest conceivable good, that is, a characteristic of the Good itself-if, indeed, it is not actually synonymous with the "Good" itself. Thus, we may not yet be able to equate "desirelessness" with the "Good," but we can certainly say that desirelessness must be at least a characteristic of, and only of, the Good.
B. Now to prove the converse of this proposition-namely, that the Good involves desirelessness. But, first, it will be necessary to clarify exactly what is meant and what is not meant by the term "Good." In general, the "Good" was used by the Neo-Platonists to mean the Final Cause of the universe as a whole, that is, that reality which everything else in the universe inherently loves and desires but which itself loves and desires nothing else. It should be clear that this is a purely formal definition, that is, it does not tell what
kind of thing the Good itself is, but simply states what relation it bears or does not bear to anything else. And to identify the "Good" with the "One," as the Neo-Platonists did-that is, to say that it happens also to be the First Formal Cause of the universe or that which by logical necessity must exist or be conceived before anything else can exist or be conceived-does not really help us in discovering what kind of thing this One-Good itself is, inasmuch as the definition of the "One" is also purely formal, signifying only that there must exist some such entity as the One without specifying what kind of entity it actually is. The Neo-Platonists themselves acknowledged this by saying that the One-Good was absolutely unknown and even in itself unknowable; only from its effects could it be known in any way. For this reason, no positive characteristic can be assigned to the Good, but only certain negative ones; that is, we can say only that whatever characteristic is present in anything by virtue of its relationship to the Good will not be present in the Good itself.
Actually there is only one relationship that anything can bear to the Good: the very definition of the "Good" as the ultimate Final Cause of the universe means simply that it is the object of love and desire of everything else. But obviously the Good itself can love or desire nothing else, since it has no final cause of its own. The Good is desireless, therefore; and since, in so far as it is specifically the "Good" (and not also the "One") it can have no further definition other than being the object of love-and desire of everything else, to this extent it can have no further characteristic of its own other than that of desirelessness. For this reason it is clear that the Good is desirelessness. And since I have already proved that permanent desirelessness is a characteristic of, and only of, the Good, these two terms can now be considered as synonymous and mutually interchangeable.
It may seem surprising that a psychological state such as desirelessness has been equated with metaphysical entity like the Good. But, once again, the "Good" has a purely formal meaning; there is no necessity that it be something like a mathematical equation, and it could very well be a state of consciousness. In fact, if "desirelessness" is really synonymous with it, the Good must be a state of consciousness, since only consciousness can be called "desirelessness," in the strict meaning of the term.